PARK RIVER, N.D. — Aaron Kjelland says he’s "inherently an optimist."
That’s a good thing, even a necessity, in modern agriculture. But it’s especially important this growing season — one that began for Kjelland with too little rain and that’s now plagued with excess moisture, harvest delays and major quality concerns in his wheat crop.
"It’s been a challenging year, that’s for sure. And there are farmers who’ve had greater challenges than we've had," said the 38-year-old who farms with his father, Orville, near Park River in northeastern North Dakota.
Spring wheat farmers across the Upper Midwest — producers throughout North Dakota, in much of Montana and South Dakota and in northwest Minnesota grow the crop — have struggled in 2019. Poor wheat prices, too little rain in some areas and too much in others during planting and now, during harvest, far too much precipitation have brought both financial and emotional distress.
Among the difficulties are "falling numbers," a measure of possible or potential sprout damage in wheat kernels. Unfavorable falling numbers makes wheat less attractive to millers and bakers and usually leads to discounts, or price reductions, in what farmers receive for their crop.
Upper Midwest spring wheat farmers pride themselves — and market their wheat to foreign and domestic buyers — on the high quality of their product. So any reduction in quality is troublesome and potentially costly.
"Falling numbers are definitely a concern," said Cassidy Marn, trade and marketing manager with the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee.
The name refers to a test in which the grain is ground into meal, water added, then mixed with a stirrer and heated. The falling number is the number of seconds it takes for the stirrer to fall to the bottom of the test tube. The less time it takes for the stirrer to fall to the bottom, the greater the potential damage to the wheat.
Rain and high humidity after wheat kernels reach maturity contribute to falling numbers, though the causes aren’t fully understood, said Kjelland, who represents northeast North Dakota on the North Dakota Wheat Commission.
Stress and depression from poor prices, quality reductions and harvest delays are a growing worry, too.
"The mood is getting very depressed," said Charlie Vogel, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.
But there’s a silver lining. Some farmers — ones who were able to plant and harvest at least part of their wheat on schedule — enjoyed both good yields and good quality.
In Montana, for example, yields generally have been good, despite harvest delays, most of them in the north-central and northeast parts of the state, Marn said.
Wheat is a cool-season grass, allowing it to fare well in the relatively cool summer of 2019, Kjelland said. He enjoyed above-average yields this year, though falling numbers are a major concern for him.
"We’re not quite sure how it will work out for price and quality," he said.
Unfortunately, widespread rains in late August and the first half of September hampered harvest, complicating combining fields with potentially above-average yields.
Spring wheat harvest delays are common this fall. In Minnesota, spring wheat harvest usually begins July 30, is most active Aug. 5 through Sept. 9 and wraps up, or nearly so, by Sept. 13. As of Sept. 15 this year, 83 percent of the crop was harvested.